A new poll of 162 members of the American Political Science Association ranks President Obama 18th among the 43 men who have served as President of the United States.
The poll indicts itself as being an immediate relic of this historical moment by placing Obama as the second most polarizing chief executive in U.S. history, behind George W. Bush, who is ranked 35th overall. The fact is we’ve entered into the “cable news” era of the presidency. We should probably expect every current president to be seen as the most polarizing when s/he is in office. And none of them will ever be as polarizing as the man who cut taxes on the rich while starting two wars.
The answer to the question “Will Obama is seen as a great president who is truly more transformative — in a good way — than his immediate predecessors?” has never been in greater flux.
His defining achievement — the Affordable Care Act — is proving to be a spectacular success, adding coverage to more than 10 million while helping to reduce our future debt by $600 billion. But five Supreme Court Justices could gut easily it over complete nonsense.
His eagerness to recede the tide of war has brought us to the brink of a historic nuclear arms agreement with Iran. But neo-conservatives in our country and in Israel are attempting to destroy that with the same sort of rhetoric that gave us the Iraq War. Meanwhile strategic misjudgements of ISIS have drawn American forces back into the Iraq, and we’re on the verge of a proxy war with Russia in the Ukraine.
Consequential executive actions — which have delayed deportations of law-abiding undocumented immigrants who came here as kids or are related to American citizens, along with modest carbon regulations and a breakthrough climate agreement with China — could also be gutted by the courts or his successor.
The reason these things seem polarizing now, though they used to represent a bipartisan concession, is because the right has been in nonsensical hysterics since the day Barack Obama was elected. This, of course, was his most “polarizing” act.
Republicans accuse Obama of tyranny when he delays a mandate for employers and doesn’t deport grandmothers. Then they demand that he give himself broader powers to make war.
That’s almost as tyrannical as using your rival’s health care reform as a model for the nation, exactly as your rival suggested.
Regardless how these questions are resolved, President Obama will always be the leader who prevented a Greater Depression and saved the auto industry. Despite the egregious failure of programs of like HAMP, our recovery has been among the best in the world. And it has only heated up as millions gained health insurance financed by new taxes on the rich, despite Republican predictions of doom.
His election and re-election as the first African-American president will be increasingly significant in a country that will be nearly 50 percent first-or-second generation immigrants by the middle of the century. He’ll probably seem a lot less “polarizing” then.
The obvious truth remains that all of our presidents — even the greats — have been flawed.
FDR allowed the New Deal to be scarred by segregation, did little-to-nothing to hinder the beginnings of the Holocaust and created Japanese-American internment camps. Even our greatest president George Washington had flaws. For instance, he could have owned our current president. Obama’s inability or unwillingness to rein in the security state continues to frustrate his liberal critics.
But in recent months, his embrace of net neutrality, local broadband, paid leave, and tuition-free community college have represented a progressive vision that could carry the Democratic Party on into the next decade.
The easiest job in the world is criticizing the hardest job in the world.
But there is a real opportunity for this president to do more to fight the wealth gap and correct some of the lapses in his leadership. So I humbly offer these suggestions to help ensure that Obama is regarded as one of the greats — and not just great-ish.
1. Go big on overtime rules.
These first two ideas are being championed by Nick Hanauer, the billionaire who created a sensation with his TED Talk warning his fellow .01 percenters that inequality is an issue that should worry them too. Democrats know they will be running against both a presidential campaign and a Koch brothers-led shadow campaign that will spend around a billion dollars each to make sure the next president — who will decide the makeup of the Supreme Court for a generation — is a Republican.
They need money and in this economy, the richest — who have a great racket going — have a lot of it to spend.
Democrats are thus struggling to engineer a platform that appeals to the middle class without alienating the donors they need. The only hope is to err on the side of the middle class, boldly, while reminding the sympathetic rich the current trend of all the gains of the recovery going to the richest is simply unsustainable and destructive.
Stagnant wages are the most immediate way workers feel the bite of the inequality. Raising the minimum wage isn’t enough. Wages need to be raised and revising outdated overtime regulations could do that for millions, adding as much as $970 a week for some workers. Hanauer is daring the administration to cover as many as 10.4 million workers with the new rules
Do it and force Republicans to run against bigger paychecks.
2. Make executive compensation reform a priority.
Hanauer has also been trumpeting the work of scholar William Lazonick, who has pointed out how corporations have been turned into self-cannibalizing “ATMs for the wealthy” thanks to SEC rule changes that began under Ronald Reagan.
More than 3 out of every 4 dollars in the trillions in profits earned by the 449 companies in the S&P 500 index went to paying off shareholders through stock buybacks that artificially inflate stock prices and dividend payments. As a result, workers’ wages have stagnated and even some investors are worried that our largest companies are failing to invest “in the future growth of their companies.”
The administration should call for a review of SEC rule Rule 10b-18 and Rule 10b-18, which have “legalized stock market manipulation through open-market repurchases.”
The freakout from Wall Street would be intense. And it’s that kind of freakout that would make it clear that tackling inequality is a sincere priority of the left — and Republicans would be forced to defend a con that mostly benefits the richest.
3. Advocate real surveillance reform.
Is there anyone alive who thinks a court with 11 men appointed by one man — Chief Justice John Roberts — with no advocate arguing in favor of privacy is ample protection from the potential abuses of mass surveillance?
The president’s achievements on civil rights — expanding them to LGBTQ people and defending voting rights — have a dark shadow when it comes to civil liberties. Creating a FISA court with some semblance of sanity (or just letting the PATRIOT Act expire) would be a real step toward redemption.
4. Refuse to commit ground troops to lead the fighting in Iraq or anywhere in the Middle East and call for an end to the authorization of military force that began the Iraq War.
The president’s expansive use of war powers is another disappointment that risks severely tarnishing his legacy. Leaving the original AUMF in Iraq open would give his successor — perhaps named Bush — the legal ability to re-invade the country at any time.
This prospect seemed ridiculous a few years ago but Americans have proven that they are easily persuaded by videos of beheadings. A majority even support sending ground troops back into the region — even though that’s exactly what ISIS wants. Democrats need to be honest and admit that if a Republican were using war powers the way this president is, we’d be losing our shit.
The president shouldn’t let his flagging poll numbers when it comes to terrorism erode his vision of becoming the president who ended endless war. Replacing the 2002 AUMF with a new AUMF that has a solid expiration date would be a nice step toward renewing that vision. It may not be possible now but with a new coalition emerging against ISIS, it could be a defining issue of his last year.
5. Do everything you can to make sure your successor is a pro-mom Democrat.
So much depends on who replaces this president. It’s the red wheelbarrow in the room.
If the Affordable Care Act and his actions on immigration and climate change become the foundation for even greater change, his legacy will be capacious. If the opposite is true, his legacy would dwindle.
The president seems to have his eye on leaving his party a legacy to run on.
Republicans have historically better at branding themselves for decades — think “pro-life” and turning the word “liberal” into a pejorative. Now President Obama has given Democrats a new brand they can be proud of — pro-mom. Obama’s championing of universal child care gives the left a starkly moral issue the reveals the lie in the right’s constant pantomime of concern for kids.
It’s a perfect legacy for the next Democratic nominee to embrace to connect herself — let’s say herself — to Obama’s vision while giving the middle class a new vision of a fairer America for all.